Video: Whole town gets behind obesity experiment

By Chief medical editor
NBC News
updated 5/10/2007 7:54:00 PM ET 2007-05-10T23:54:00

It's a remarkable experiment on a grand scale — a battle plan for cities across the United States to fight obesity.

Somerville, Mass., is home to nearly 80,000 and is the birthplace of Marshmallow Fluff. As in many other U.S. cities, kids here are overweight. But in Somerville, change is under way. 

Five years ago, Tufts University enlisted the entire city to attack childhood obesity, not just in schools, but on every front. The results after just eight months showed that students in first through third grades gained one pound less than students in similar communities. While it may not sound like a lot, this shift in weight gain over time would actually move many children out of the overweight category.

"What is different about this intervention is that we engage the entire community and we intervened before school, during school, after school, in the homes throughout the community and really changed the world that the children lived in," says Chris Economos with the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University.

No part of Somerville daily life is too big or too small to be included. Some streets have been changed to one-way to encourage walking to school.

And parents were given homework, newsletters, a monthly column in the local paper — even coupons for healthier food. In school, they implemented huge changes — more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, taste tests to introduce new foods, nutrition training for teachers and food servers, and ice cream only once a week.

After school, students were offered cooking lessons to make healthy snacks.

Even restaurants in town are involved, and it doesn't hurt that Mayor Joe Curtatone is a health nut and head cheerleader of the experiment.

"There has really been a mindset that has changed toward active living, eating smart, playing hard," Curtatone says.

Ruthie Grossman says the study helped her see the light.

"I have exercised more, I have eaten less junk food, I have tried to make my life healthier in general, and I think it is working," she says.

And it's not just Somerville's kids who have been affected. Parents have now started fitness programs for themselves, showing that when an entire community comes together, it can be the key to conquering childhood obesity.

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